Restart Reviews: Jazz/Pelicans, July 30

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing a game from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. The goal is to post these three times a week, with next week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

With six seconds left in last night’s game between the Jazz and the Pelicans, there was only one question on everyone’s mind watching: where is Zion Williamson? The young, special forward from Duke played 15 minutes, scoring 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and any time he was on the court, the New Orleans offense looked significantly better than when he was off. In Zion’s game time, he scored 13 of the Pelicans’ 30 points, and it was difficult to slow him down at any point.

But: New Orleans left him off the floor for the most important play of the game, Brandon Ingram (23 points) missed a step-back three, and New Orleans lost a badly-needed game, 106-104. This one felt especially painful, because New Orleans led by as many as 16 and controlled the flow of the game for most of the first 3.5 quarters. Considering how efficient Zion was, and how New Orleans is at their best when he plays, it didn’t make a ton of sense to leave him out for the finish, minutes restriction or not. After the game, Alvin Gentry said they played him as much as the medical staff allowed, which is a fine and acceptable answer. At the same time, I would imagine Alvin Gentry wants a job in 2021. Zion could’ve played six more seconds.

The Jazz struggled to slow down Zion, obviously, but the two-headed monster of Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday both scored plenty, too:

The issue here is that neither was particular efficient. Holiday was a tad better, getting to 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting, but he also committed six turnovers against a Jazz defense that isn’t exactly aggressive on the perimeter. Ingram, meanwhile, got to 23 points on the back of seven free throws and a middling 7-of-20 outing. Ingram never seemed to find his consistent stroke either from the perimeter (2-of-8) of from mid-range (3-of-9); the Jazz tried to force him away from the rim, and it mostly worked. The most surprising outing in this game Pelicans-wise was a fantastic offensive outing by J.J. Redick (21 points):

Redick flashed his typical deep-shooting skills in this one, especially in transition, but he was solid in mid-range, too. With three guys scoring 20+ points and Zion performing excellently in limited time, it did feel like the Pelicans were going to steal this one. Enter Lonzo Ball, who had one of his worst games since his rookie season:

It was kind of a strange night: Lonzo got several good shots, including a couple of wide-open threes, that just didn’t go down. If it had just been that, you could shrug it off and move on…but Lonzo was also atrocious at the rim. Ball missed four layup attempts in this one, clearly influenced by Utah’s stout rim protection with Rudy Gobert, who we’ll talk about shortly. Shooters shoot, obviously, but considering Ball missed both of his free throw attempts in this one, it might have been a night for him to lay back.

For the Jazz, it was their own sort of strange night, too. When I wrote my NBA Restart preview last week, I mentioned that the Jazz had serious issues with outshooting other teams, but failing to win because they lose the shot volume game frequently. Utah doesn’t force many turnovers, has turnover issues themselves, and has quietly not been a great rebounding team offensively. They’ve been very reliant this year on hitting threes to get them over the top on bad shot volume nights, and when they go 8-of-34 from deep as they did in this one, you’re probably right to expect a loss. Add on that Utah actually did lose the shot volume game (-5.5 shot equivalents) and it’s a miracle they won.

Well, they did! The reason is fairly simple, and also not, but let’s start with the most obvious factor: free throws. The Jazz got ten more attempts than New Orleans despite having roughly the same amount of rim/short-range attempts. You could argue that New Orleans got a couple fewer calls than they should have, and I’d hear it out, but it felt as if Utah was simply more aggressive for large stretches of the game:

That, along with some fantastic half-court defense, earned Utah the victory. New Orleans demolished Utah’s weak transition defense in this one, outscoring the Jazz 27-10 in transition. On a normal night, that probably would’ve been enough to get them over the hump, even if they’d just been below-average on offense. The issue: the Jazz crushed their half-court offense, and won the half-court battle 96-77. That’s a big deal, and it helped Utah pull this one off, in large part thanks to a fantastic fourth-quarter effort by Donovan Mitchell:

Mitchell was electric down the stretch, and it’s the most in-control he’s felt of an important game in some time. Everything ran through him, and with Bojan Bogdanovic being out the rest of the way, this seems like the obvious way most late-game Jazz possessions will go. It’ll be Mitchell taking the shot or attempting to create a wide-open one for someone else that he trusts. It’s more than a little funny we’re treating a third-year player as the wise old leader that knows best, but, well, here we are.

Mitchell wasn’t very good in the first three quarters of this game, though, and someone needed to pick up the scoring slack. Surprisingly, it was Jordan Clarkson catching fire off the bench, especially in the third quarter:

Clarkson got 23 points on 17 shots and may have been Utah’s third-best player in this one. Joe Ingles had a pretty middling game, committing five turnovers; Royce O’Neale rebounded well but had a rough night from three; Mike Conley scored 20 but struggled frequently on defense. It was up to Clarkson to deliver, and he did. Notably, Clarkson played as many minutes as the starters with 32; for a large portion of this game, the Jazz ran with a six-man rotation, and the only guys to get serious second-half playing time were Tony Bradley and Georges Niang, both out of necessity. We’ll have to monitor that going forward.

The last reason the Jazz won this game, and a very key one: Rudy Gobert.

Some of this won’t show up in the stats, and some will, but it was Gobert who consistently saved Utah’s bacon throughout this game. Not only did he have a 10-point effort in the fourth quarter, he was Utah’s best rebounder defensively (unsurprisingly!) and came up with three blocks and a whole bunch of altered shots. If you’d like his impact spelled out, think of it this way: Utah, playing against a team without a true rim protector (Jaxson Hayes comes closest, but is too young and raw), converted 21 of 28 attempts at the rim. New Orleans, playing against Rudy Gobert for 34 minutes, converted 15 of 30. Breaking it down further, New Orleans converted 6 of 8 attempts at the rim during Gobert’s absence; they were just 9 of 22 when he played.

Other various pieces of discussion:

  • Neither team had fantastic shot selection, but it did feel as if Utah got the upper hand. 62 of their 84 field goal attempts were at the rim or from three; 61 of New Orleans’ 94 were. That said, New Orleans did hit 6 of their 15 long-range twos. If I were the Pelicans, I’d try to get a bit closer on those, and to be honest, there’s no reason J.J. Redick should be taking them when he could just take threes instead. (Brandon Ingram takes a lot of these, but he’s been pretty good at nailing them.)
  • Of real interest to me was that New Orleans did a bit better than anticipated on the boards, especially when Jaxson Hayes was in the game. Hayes picked up a crazy 5 OREBs in just 19 minutes of action and crushed the Utah frontcourt during his time out there. If Hayes can develop more of an offensive game to go with this particular skillset, he’ll have a long career, as he’s already become an above-average defender.

  • There’s something interesting to how badly New Orleans demolished Utah by in transition. The Jazz had one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA before the pandemic hit, ranking 27th in PPP allowed. The Pelicans aren’t a particularly efficient offense, but they got a lot of open looks against a Jazz D that struggled to properly get back. (Note the Redick three posted above.) I don’t know that the Pellies can do this against the Clippers in their next game, but they’ll have similar opportunities to push the pace to great success against Washington, San Antonio, and maybe Memphis.
  • Per stats.nba.com, the Pelicans’ pace when Zion was in the game was barely 90 possessions per 48 minutes…which is extremely slow for an offense that should be speeding things up whenever Zion is playing.
  • The Baby Death Lineup the Pelicans had struggled in this one, getting outscored 24-13 in 16 possessions due to missing some easy short-range looks and the Jazz targeting this lineup at the rim. The Jazz also hit 4 of 6 threes against it, which is difficult to repeat, but does highlight that this lineup isn’t infallible. That said, still easily the best thing the Pelicans have going.